Thursday, July 17, 2014

Plagiarism Redux

I had lunch this week with an old friend who teaches physics.  We have a common interest in learning.  While methodologically there are limits to the overlap between physics and economics, that in no way inhibited our conversation, which I found fun and interesting.   I hope my friend found it the same way.  As I am apt to try to tie current developments to first principles, I brought up what I knew about physics education that was facilitated by learning technology from years ago.  The first bit was on studio physics that came out of Jack Wilson's class at RPI.  I had read about it in preparing for writing the paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects.  It was part of the Educom Library and was the only real example they had where the approach seemed to both lower the cost of instruction and improve the quality.  But it is an approach that simply doesn't scale well and hence couldn't be implemented at a place like Illinois, which has one or two orders of magnitude greater number of students than does RPI.  A more transferable approach was given by Just In Time Teaching, which originally came out of IUPUI.  That was implemented here in Physics, and then other disciplines took it up as well.  I knew about these things ahead of time and my friend, perhaps to accommodate me, tied everything they are currently doing to these earlier developments.

On my side of the fence I discussed what I believe to be THE SKILL we're trying to develop in the students.  That is to produce a coherent narrative, one that takes the theory and allows it to be applied in a context.  If the student has this skill and it is well honed, then that same narrative can be tweaked and applied to another context where the theory remains relevant.  So even though economics is about models and data and the connecting of those, and as a theorist I've often viewed it as about the models only, there is still the need to produce narrative just with that, to understand what is in the model and what the model abstracts from entirely.  This sort of understanding emphasizes the limits of scope as much as it takes pride in what the model explains.

Getting beyond the economics, I've always thought that an educated person is one who produces his own opinion, by building a narrative, so what I said about the skill for social science is to me really the skill to be an educated person.  And the way to develop the skill is by ongoing practice.  Writing posts such as this one is a way to encourage such practice.  My approach is to make it up as I go along, not to have it all well rehearsed ahead of time.  In that sense it is a bit like improvisation on the stage.  Where it differs from improvisation is that if I choose a wrong word, or write an erroneous sentence, then I will go back and change it.  In the sentence that starts, Writing posts such as this one..., I originally had chosen the word "garner" where I now have the word "encourage."  I have an online dictionary in my bookmarks toolbar and check it fairly regularly when I write.  Garner didn't fit my meaning.  I also try to make larger checks between the ideas that emerge from the narrative production and what I think I know from elsewhere, reading or prior experience. Editing a piece will sometimes induce a rewrite of a paragraph or an entire section, for similar reasons.

The making it up as I go along is itself not an idea original to me.  It falls in the category called Writing to Learn, the father of which is Donald Murray.  Blogging like this is informal writing.  Do I need to call it to the reader's attention that making it up as you go along can be a good thing to do because you discover things along the way?  And then, do I need to give it the formal name attributed to the process and mention Murray as well?  Is not doing that plagiarism?  Some years ago I wrote a post, Do We Plagiarize Inadvertently?  It aimed to get at these sort of questions. 

Actually though, informal as this piece is, I've made some effort to cite many of the ideas, though I admit that in several cases the links above are not where I found those ideas the first time I became aware of them.  Further, my earlier blog post was really more concerned with a different sort of issue.  That is illustrated by my contention that producing a coherent narrative is the skill.  How did I come to believe that to be the case?  Did I reason it through on my own based on my prior experiences or did I read about it somewhere and then embrace it fully?  The latter seems more likely to me.  But the truth is that I don't remember.  I have no recall of the piece or set of readings that convinced me on this point nor do I have any sense of when I first came to take this as true.  My memory selectively recalls some things very well.  Other things definitely happened but never seem to have gotten written into memory.  What then should be done about it? 

I've found from time to time something of the opposite happening.  I produce an analysis in a blog post and then, sometime later, I read a similar analysis as a New York Times Op-Ed or in some other periodical.  Sometimes the author seems to have missed some points that I felt were critical when writing my piece.  Other times the two pieces are pretty much in sync on the substance, differing mainly in style and when they first appeared.  My blog has quite a limited readership so I doubt there ever was an incident where one of my posts was plagiarized.  As they say in the vernacular, the two authors came to results independently.  That's the likely truth and I'm not at all irked that somebody has produced something I've already said.  Indeed, I find it somewhat reassuring about my own thinking to occasionally see it mirrored elsewhere.  It's an indication that I'm not completely off base.

Now plagiarism seems back in the news, witness this column from today's Inside Higher Ed about  Slavoj Žižek.  I thought I had something to contribute on this score, an expansion on the themes from my earlier post.  That's the impetus for the current post.

The issue is this.  How different is producing your own coherent narrative from reading a challenging book or watching a movie with a sophisticated story line?  Is making sense in the reading or film watching essentially the same as producing a coherent narrative or are they fundamentally different activities?  I am not sure and I'm also not sure whether what I do is similar to what other people do in this regard.  But what seems clear is that I often end up writing a post about the book or movie.  Given that, the reading or the viewing seems indistinct to me from what I do in pre-writing (Murray's term) when the post theme has been triggered by something else.  Indeed, I've found recently that I no longer read as I used to and simply immerse myself into the story, and likewise for the movies.  Instead, I read a chapter or two or watch on the DVR for a while, but then pause.  In that pause I am reflecting about what just occurred.  Earlier in my life, I believe I was able to do both simultaneously, with the refection part more tacit.  Now I feel a need to make the reflection activity more obvious to me.  Prior to 2005 when I started to write this blog, the need was less in that the reflection didn't translate into something tangible.  So while the evidence is lacking I suspect I was doing the parallel processing right along.

Given that, at the level of thinking the notion of plagiarism may be quite artificial.  What difference does it make whether our thoughts are triggered by some experience or from reading what somebody else has written?  And if we don't have our own writing activity immediately in mind, but instead process those thoughts and take the distillate for our own, are we able to discern this difference later, when we are engaged in some writing activity? 

I don't know the circumstances with Slavoj Žižek.  I'm not arguing here that he is innocent.  What I am saying is that it is quite different to deliberately engage in deception from inadvertently not acknowledging a source.  But this difference may be difficult if not impossible for somebody else to discern.  And it may not even be easy for the alleged perpetrator to know, which was also one of the points in my earlier post.

Understanding where our own contribution begins and where the ideas of others should be given credit instead seems to me more art than science.   Jury trials demand a verdict.  Art, in contrast, allows for shading, of gray and other colors too, and from that flows differences in interpretation.  Maybe we should try to consider plagiarism that way as well.  Citing a source when you haven't actually read what's in it may be equally reprehensible.  Of that non-crime, I'm definitely guilty on occasion.  I wonder how often that is true of others, whether they fess up to it or not.

Tolerance is perhaps best found in our own indiscretions. 

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